It is forever difficult to conclude whether Tony Watt is a diffident or insouciant sort when encountering him in the media environment. At Mar Hall the other day, the on-loan Hearts striker picked over his words as he picked away at his beard in a manner that left you unsure if his responses were born of a deep-seated angst, or simply agony over having to fulfil early morning press duties.
That is the enigmatic nature of Watt, who could yet lead the line for Scotland in their World Cup qualifying opener on the island of Malta tonight, despite having only earned a call-up following the injury withdrawal of Leigh Griffiths. On that matter and all others, Watt’s oratory wasn’t exactly in the John F Kennedy domain the other day. Yet, the player still offered up unvarnished truths in the kernels imparted that engendered certain sympathies for him. The 22-year-old has had his career dissected and dissed in equal measure since his Celtic breakthrough of four years ago… which seemed to be quickly followed by his walking through a professional footballer exit marked “troubled”.
Scotland assistant Mark McGhee this week spoke of his belief that a player he not long ago presented as one you would want to give a shake for failing to maximise his undeniable talents was now in the right frame of mind to do just that.
Watt concurs, but his natural awkwardness/questioning nature/difficult streak won’t simply settle for agreeing that his decision to move to Tynecastle has allowed him to “turn a corner” professionally. Perhaps it is because Watt, still only 22, seems to have turned more corners than a rally driver since leaving Celtic for a loan spell at Lierse in early 2014. That led to a season with Standard Liege before his permanent move to Charlton last year, which has given way to loans with Cardiff, Blackburn Rovers and, now, Hearts. And luckless periods with injury.
Under Robbie Neilson, Watt is reminding us that he has the capacity to combine graft with guile in a manner to make him a potent performer beyond any goalscoring. A point he seeks to make in conversation, despite joining up with Scotland on the back of his first goal in maroon – which earned a late win away to Partick Thistle last week.
“People say ‘he’s doing well, he’s turned a corner’ but I don’t think I’m doing as well as I did at times last season,” he said. “People don’t watch you in England, they don’t recognise how well you’re doing. It’s out of sight, out of mind. I know there’s another level to come from me so I’m not worried. As long as I can keep mentally right and mentally happy, I’ll be fine.
“I chose Hearts because I wanted to go somewhere to win games and I also wanted to be close to my family. I wanted stability for me and my girlfriend and I came back up here because I wanted to be in familiar surroundings again. I had offers in the English Championship and, if I’d waited, there would have been more. But I wanted to go to Hearts for a year and see where it takes me. It’s plain to see there is more money down there. But it’s not about the money, it’s about the football. I don’t care about anything else, I just want to play.
“The gaffer [Strachan] put me in the squad earlier in the year and I must have put something in his head if he’s called me up again. I spoke to my agent and other people and I genuinely thought this squad might have come too early for me.
“When I wasn’t named in the original squad, I wasn’t gutted. But I’m delighted to be in now as everyone wants to play for their country. I want to show people that I can do it.
“It’s an opinions game nowadays and I want to show people that I can be involved.
“I have never once doubted the decision to come back up the road and it’s good to be back home in familiar surroundings. It was good to add a goal at the weekend. I feel I’ve been playing well but people mark strikers by the goals they score. I’ve been playing a bit deeper but I like scoring goals and I hope I can manage to do both this season.”
Watt’s pinpointing of his current loan and attendant return home allowing him to achieve a psychological well-being points to a fellow who feels things deeply.
“Stability is important,” he said. “Playing football is great but you can’t give 100 per cent on the pitch if you are not 100 per cent right in your head.
“It’s about getting better now. I’m at a club where the manager trusts young players and I’m still a young player. We have good foundations to build on at Hearts and hopefully it will be a good year for everyone at the club.
“It’s for people to judge how I’m doing but the only opinions I care about are the people picking the teams. I just wanted to come up the road, be happy and play. Thanks to the gaffer at Hearts, I’m doing that.”
As a result, Watt has been given a chance with Scotland that many would feel, for the first time, doesn’t seem incongruous with his club status. Not that he would agree with that assessment. “When I was with Scotland in the past, I didn’t feel out of my depth. I was taking the ball and doing what I can do. If I thought I was out my depth, there would be no point in me turning up. I scored goals at Celtic but I didn’t start many games. I know I say it all the time but it was just into double figures. The way we play at Hearts, we’re not a selfish team. It’s about everybody playing their part.”
What part Watt will play for Scotland in the near and longer-term remains one of the intrigues.